Notes on Reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House

The Wounded Eagle (1870), Rosa Bonheur

The Wounded Eagle (1870), Rosa Bonheur

In every creature a spark of God.
—Leoš Janáček

On a slip of paper found in his clothes after his death, Leoš Janáček had written:

Why do I go into the dark, frozen cells of criminals with the poet of Crime and Punishment? Into the minds of criminals and there I find a spark of God. You will not wipe away the crimes from their brow, but equally you will not extinguish the spark of God. Into what depths it leads—how much truth there is in his work! See how the old man slides down from the oven, shuffles to the corpse, makes the sign of the cross over it, and with a rusty voice sobs the words: ‘A mother gave birth even to him!’ Those are the bright places in the house of the dead. [citation]

The “poet,” of course, was Fyodor Dostoevsky, from whose semi-autobiographical novel, Notes from a Dead House, Janáček created his opera, From the House of the Dead. I saw the fabled Patrice Chéreau production of the opera when it came to the Met Opera some years ago. The opera was my introduction to Janáček’s music, an experience a little like that of my first live baseball game (Ken Holtzman pitching for the Cubs in the first no-hitter in Wrigley field in nine years). Memorable, absolutely, but without a drop of context by which to appreciate what a significant event it was.

For one, I’d never read Dostoevsky’s book. This summer, I spotted a brand new Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Notes from a Dead House and had the peculiar idea it would make a good summertime read. Since college days, I’d tried and failed on several occasions to read The Idiot (which I now own in a Pevear/Volokhonsky translation that beckons balefully from a shelf). I got no further with attempts at the Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. I suppose I thought, as I’d seen the opera, that I might have a better chance with Dostoevsky this time around.

The first passage that riveted my attention contained a stark premonition of forced labor in concentration camps in World War II:

It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total uselessness and meaninglessness. [Notes from a Dead House 22]

Dostoevsky’s book is based on his own years as a prisoner sentenced to hard labor in Siberia for “his participation in a secret utopian socialist society” in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. [Notes vii] Dostoevsky’s choice of a fictional narrator and protagonist, the latter a nobleman convicted of killing his wife, were “in part a mask for the censors. . . . But the mask is dropped rather quickly.” [Notes xii] Of the relationship between the nobleman stripped of his rights and peasant prisoners, Dostoevsky observed:

every newcomer to prison, two hours after his arrival, becomes the same as all the others, at home, as rightfully a master in the prison association as any other. They all understand him, and he understands them all, is known to them all, and they all consider him one of theirs. Not so with a nobleman, a gentleman. No matter how fair, kind, intelligent he is, for years on end the whole mass of them will hate and despise him; they will not understand him and, above all, will not trust him. He is not a friend and not a comrade, and even if over the years he reaches a point where they no longer insult him, still he will never be one of them and will be eternally, painfully conscious of his estrangement and solitude. [Notes 253-4]

My response was immediately empathetic, and I had to stop myself to ask: Is it reasonable to grant more sympathy to the “ten times more tormenting” plight, as Dostoevsky put it, of the imprisoned nobleman than to the plight of those who’d never had the advantages the nobleman has lost?

Dostoevsky’s keen and considered observations of his time in prison offer up a slew of wrong lessons that imprisonment and punishment can impart. The major, a prison official with daily impact on the prisoners’ lives,

always has a need to crush someone, to take something away, to deprive someone of his rights—in short, to restore order somewhere. . . . There are punishments for mischief (so people like our major reason), and for these scoundrelly prisoners there is severity and an unrelenting, literal enforcement of the law—that’s all it takes! . . . These giftless enforcers of the law decidedly do not understand, and are incapable of understanding, that its literal enforcement alone, without thought, without an understanding of its spirit, leads straight to disorder and has never led to anything else. [Notes 146-7]

At the conclusion of the book, Dostoevsky described the redemptive “spark of God” that so moved Janáček:

how much youth was buried uselessly within these walls, how much great strength perished here for nothing! I must say it all: these people are extraordinary people. They are perhaps the most gifted, the strongest of all our people. But their mighty strength perishes for nothing, perishes abnormally, unlawfully, irretrievably. And who is to blame? [Notes 296]

Here, as elsewhere in the book, I was pulled up short. For many of the prisoners whose stories Dostoevsky related, the spark was surely there, but Shishkov’s tale of brutally beating and murdering his wife, without a trace of remorse, gave me considerable pause.

Listening List

Leoš Janáček, Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) (1927-1928) (Charles Mackerras/Vienna State Opera Chorus/Vienna Philharmonic)

 On Spotify

On YouTube


A review of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Notes from a Dead House may be found here.

Reviews of the Chéreau production at the Met Opera may be found here and here,  and a DVD of the Chéreau production, performed by Pierre Boulez/Arnold Schoenberg Choir/Mahler Chamber Orchestra, may be found here.

Excerpts from two perspectives on Shishkov’s tale (“Akulka’s Husband,” in Notes 211-220) may be found in Nancy Ruttenberg’s Dostoevsky’s Democracy (136-137) and Anna Schur’s Wages of Evil: Dostoevsky and Punishment (91-92)


Credits: The image at the head of the post may be found here. The text of the epigraph apparently appears at the head of Janáček’s score. The quotations may be found at the links indicated, together with the page number, where available.





Breezeway Homage No. 4, Strange Reaction

Strange Reaction. Susan Scheid (2015)

Strange Reaction, Susan Scheid (2015)

The collage takes its name from the poem “Strange Reaction” in John Ashbery’s collection Breezeway. Its last line, which refers to croutons, may be one of the strangest closing lines in the book. Yet it’s no wonder, for, as the poem notes, “[b]y then we were deep in imagination.” Continue reading

In Search Of . . . Maine’s Shoreline

Rockland Breakwater Light

Rockland Breakwater Light

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
—Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land

At the cottage we rented in Maine, we settled into easy rituals. Mornings, we sat out-of-doors with a simple breakfast, listening for loons and keeping an eye out for a pair of grosbeaks who visited from time to time. Evenings, we sat out again, then repaired inside for dinner and listened to episodes from a splendid CD set of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Continue reading

In Search Of . . . Maine Past

In Search of Lost Times . . . Beyond the Sea, Lincolnville Beach

In Search of Lost Times . . . Beyond the Sea, Lincolnville Beach

It is not down in any map; true places never are.
—Herman Melville, from Moby-Dick

At the Maine Historical Society in Portland, I found irresistible a slim volume discounted from ten dollars to one. The book, a reprint of Charles W. Eliot’s 1899 John Gilley of Baker’s Island, began, “To be absolutely forgotten in a few years is the common fate of mankind.” [Eliot 1]  In dry prose that set his story in bas-relief, Eliot offered the Gilley family as paragon and example: “This little book describes with accuracy the actual life of one of the to-be-forgotten millions. Is this life a true American type? If it is, there is good hope for our country.” [Eliot 4] Continue reading